Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dogs and Their Sense of Humor

The more I think about it, the less I know how exactly we humans differ from the dogs. I know we wear pants, but so does Goofy, so that's hardly dispositive. Besides those wonderful opposable thumbs of ours, is there anything that makes us substantially different from other animals? We aren't the only animal who uses tools, nor the only animal with a complex language system. The religious might say that we're the only animal with a soul, but in the same breath, they're likely to start talking about Rainbow Bridge.

For me, one of the most salient positive attributes of the human condition is the sense of humor, which consists of not only being able to understand and appreciate a joke, but the ability to make a joke, as well. Think of the cognition the most basic humor entails! Humor is the result of an incongruity in the normal course of things with an unexpected result. To appreciate humor, one must first have a detailed expectation of what should happen, so when that expectation is thwarted by the incongruity, one is aware of it and can react.

Besides requiring a structure of what normalcy consists of to be present in a being's mind, in order to engage in humor one must have a flexible sense of perspective, an ability to remove oneself from one's own mindset and see the world empathetically, to imagine what things are like from others' points of view. It's undoubtedly a sophisticated, higher, type of thought process, which, arguably, could be used to differentiate humans from the "lower" animals. Humans are the animals who joke.

Except, dogs do, too. I've known a few humorless dogs (hello, Chi-Chi), and a lot of dogs who have no sense of humor about themselves, but I know dogs understand certain types of jokes, laugh at them, and make jokes themselves.

Levi's sense of humor, for example, tends toward the slapstick. Someone falling down pretty much always cracks him up. When he laughs he flattens his ears, so they hang off the side of his head like a jester's hat, his lips curl upward, his eyes squint with delight; he couldn't be doing anything but laughing. His appearance then has some resemblance to a submissive posture, but it's quite different in a lot of subtle ways. Because of Levi's coloring, his expressions are unusually readable, and he laughs, and he does it at appropriate times and at appropriate things.

Nothing makes Levi laugh more than playing a joke of his own. These are his two favorites.

When he's very happy to see someone, or very excited about something, he thinks nipping you in the butt is the funniest thing in the world. He knows the appropriate pressure, and it's much more of a goose than a proper nip, but when he gets one in, and recognizes that you're aware of it, he breaks up. There you were, expecting not to get pinched on the ass, and then Levi pinched you! Look at the reversal of expectation! It's a joke seeped in irony.

OK, not irony, but it's totally a canine version of standing behind someone to their right, and tapping their left shoulder so they turn the wrong way. And when Levi surprises his "victim," he laughs as hard as any perpetrator of any practical joke. I'm not claiming he's Noel Coward, just that he intentionally jokes.

But Levi's very favorite joke is this: He'll go out of the house from one door, the back door, for instance. Then, when outside, if he discovers the side door is accidentally open, he'll come back in the house through that. This is an infrequent occurrence. Almost always, when Levi goes out the back door, he comes in the back door, so when he has the opportunity to surprise me by coming in the unexpected door, it's an opportunity for comedy he simply can't resist.

When Levi has successfully pulled off this joke, he beams with happiness, and can't stop laughing. He's not happy because he got in the house, but because he did it in such a surprising way! Ha, didn't see that coming, did you, dad? You're looking out the back door, like a stupid monkey, while I, Levi, have already let myself in! Could something be funnier?

Below is a film of a dog jumping over fire. I don't know the circumstances of the filming, but it doesn't seem like any kind of abuse situation. It looks to me like this dog thinks jumping over the fire is a hoot, because who would expect a dog to jump over fire? I mean, dogs usually walk around a fire, but this guy just flies over it! If he's not intentionally being funny, what is he doing?

I'm not saying that Levi is Chris Rock, or even Gallagher, and I'm not maintaining that his jokes are funny, just that they're jokes. So, if other animals have a sense of humor, in addition to the many other more obvious similarities to us, how is it that there's any meaningful difference between us?

Dog Jumping in the Fire - Click here for more free videos


Raven said...

I don't see many differences between us and the animals. And anyone who says that animals have no soul has never been close to one.

Cynthia said...

There are no differences between the human animal and other animals. We all evolved from the same stuff, we have the same set of emotions that evolved to keep us alive. Someday it'll be commonly accepted that we are just another animal and the other animals also have feelings just as we do. :)

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